Hayao Miyazaki is known for some of the best anime ever made. From his humble beginnings working on animated adaptations of traditional English fictions such as Treasure Island and Puss ‘n Boots to modern genre classics including Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, Miyazaki has achieved an almost unparalleled mastery of animation and storytelling.
Ponyo, or Ponyo on the Cliff, is another brilliant gem in the king of anime’s crown.
This retelling of the classic mermaid myth, mixing Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with the traditional Japanese wish-granting fish, is presented with perfect balance, providing entertainment for children and parents alike.
The story centers around a goldfish princess’ fascination with the world beyond the sea. When her aquatic sunbathing leads her near a port village, Brunhilde (a reference to the Norseshieldmaiden of the Eddas and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen) is trapped in a dredging net and narrowly escapes to the smaller prison of a glass jar. Five-year-old resident Sosuke frees her while playing at the shore, and takes her home to live in a green plastic bucket, which seems a perfectly suitable home for the wandering princess. Sosuke names his new pet Ponyo (an onomatopoeia based on Miyazaki’s idea of the sound made when touching a soft, squishy thing) and promptly hauls her off to meet his friends at school and the retirement villa where his mother is employed. Ponyo’s father, a sailor, is out at sea and will have to wait to meet the enchanted fish.
Through beautiful imagery and endearing storytelling, the adventure commences when Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto, a wizard living in a castle beneath the waves retrieves her from the island to prevent her from unbalancing the forces of nature. Ponyo refuses to be his captive, having fallen in love with the charming and resourceful Sosuke, and escapes, unleashing forces her father has carefully harvested to bring about a return to a mythic era in Earth’s life-cycle.
Meanwhile, Sosuke himself is devastated by the loss. He had vowed to protect Ponyo, and his mother’s frustration over the absence of her husband is lost on the boy, who thinks of his father as a hard-working provider.
When Ponyo returns, it is with the full power of her own father’s great magics. She clearly does not understand her power, and a tsunami batters the little village as the moon begins a descent from orbit, threatening to bring an end to human life on Earth. Devonian beasts swim in the waters that have now swallowed all but the highest points of the mountain village.
When Ponyo’s mother, a mighty nature goddess called Granmammare, ascends from the deep, she reveals that only love can grant Ponyo’s wish and save mankind from Fujimoto’s ill-considered and far-awry plans.
Ponyo offers all the best of Miyazaki’s style for all audiences. While obviously targeting a very young market, the film is just as enchanting to those adults who appreciate a good fairy tale. The pacing is suitable to a child’s attention-span, and even though this leads to tightly-spaced plot points, the story remains captivating to older viewers.
Studio Ghibli engaged all of its tremendous talents to create this stunning visual feast. From the opening scenes to the closing credits, all the whimsy and wonder of Miyazaki’s vision shines through. Like all of their work, this film is focused on achieving the pinnacle of traditional animation, and if there were any CGI elements anywhere, they were invisible to my eyes. The style of the film is a brilliant mix of anime and traditional Japanese brush painting, with the ocean portrayed as a living thing, made up not just of fishes and water but also spirits large and small.
The characters are likewise treated with great care, and the denizens of the retirement home and schoolyard have important roles to play in the realization of Ponyo’s dream. Disney’s hand in the American version is obvious without being overwhelming since voice actors Noah Cyrus (Miley’s sister) and Frankie Jonas (the one NOT in the band) both do a terrific job voicing their characters in a way that is endearing and fits perfectly with other Disney/Ghibli projects. The voice-over cast features numerous adult stars such as Liam Neeson, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Cloris Leachman. Betty White and Lily Tomlin, all of whom add to the film’s whimsical demeanor.
Miyazaki’s flair for mixing the magical with the real really shine through in this film. All of the elements come together perfectly, as he blends his own real-life experiences with his love of myth and fantasy. The characters and setting, portrayed with touching authenticity, are reflections in a shimmering sea of his own friends and family. Sosuke is based on Miyazaki’s own son, Goro, while the name comes from a Japanese novel called The Gate, published in 1910. The village was inspired by Tomonoura, a town where he stayed for a time. The master animator also handled much of the water animation personally, helping to tie the most important elements of the story together.
Of course, this is an anime, with all the stylistic traditions that go with that form. There are numerous subtleties that will likely be lost on viewers not familiar with the genre, but then Miyazaki also draws on Western traditions, adding a note of familiarity that might be missing in the works of less seasoned and global, if still brilliant, anime creators.
This film is a wonderful piece of animated storytelling that should be missed by no one. Take your children, your grandchildren, your nieces and nephews. Take your neighbor’s kids, or your significant other. Take someone, anyone, and share this beautiful, light-hearted dream. Don’t let the “studio demographic” fool you. Sure, Ponyo is a movie for the kiddies, but there’s enough magic in it to entertain even the most reality-hardened cynic. After all, I generally avoid cute like the bubonic plague, and I came out well aware that “I’m not dead yet”.
I give Ponyo an unequivocal 9 of 10. See it.